Hear Our Voice

The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

Reflections on Yom HaShoah – The Canary in the Coalmine

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In so many ways, we Jews get messed with. When we claim our tragic past, we are accused of acting like martyrs under false pretense. When we deject our past and rise above all that has befallen us, we are accused of the secret command and control of the world. We are the classic canary in the coalmine but perhaps, not in the way we tend to think. Yes Niemoller’s poem, “First They Came for the Socialists,” is true. Its true for we Jews, and its true for all societal minorities out of power. But I am suggesting that the “canary in the coalmine” means something else. Why did the first coal miner bring a canary into the coal mine in the first place? I imagine perhaps it was because canaries sing. Their bright colors bring light to a dark and airless world. The particular contrast they represent to a claustrophobic, ever-darkening arena is striking. Could it be that the first coal miner brought the canary into the coal mine as a way of both finding but then ultimately stifling inspiration? The canary, like we Jews, stands out. She is, at her core, singing a different tune than is sung so often by the world around her. She is inspiring. And she is intriguing. However, she is intriguing. She sings and sings, bringing joy but also potentially enticing shame. For how dare she sing even once the coal miners’ hums have dissipated with the last shades of light? I wonder if the Jews have been like the canaries. Not barometers of the virulence of hate but as symbols of hope and steadfastness that should have become extinct in the face of so many trials and tribulations. For when we Jews sing, we dare sing of hope and peace and justice and kindness and a God that forgives and wishes only the best for us. Our willingness through the ages to keep singing, to not lose, to not ultimately be defeated, to not allow the spark inside each one of us to cease- this might be what it really means to be the canary in the coalmine.

To those who may take offense at my claim of Jewish suffering, do we not deserve even one day a year to pause and reflect and lament the overwhelmingly catastrophic destructions waged against us? Our claim of our own suffering on especially today, Yom HaShoah, is not only appropriate, it is necessary. We Jews have always committed ourselves to the plights of others. From the very beginning of our story, we are arguing for the sake of strangers. And our God is demanding that even in the face of the suffering of our enemies, while we celebrate our freedom, we are commanded to take no pleasure in their tears. For they too are God’s creations. This, I would argue, is our crucible and perhaps the source of the hatred others had and have for us. Nothing keeps us down! Yes, we have setbacks. Yes, we have suffered and lost mightily. But we keep getting back up. We float like butterflies and sting like bees. And in the end, every time, no matter what, we sing. We keep singing. We keep singing like that damn canary. Because we Jews do have a unique and chosen legacy that we have chosen for ourselves. Time and again, we are the ones who insist that the Messiah will yet come, insisting ironically that we are the ones who will bring him/her.

So today, for just a few moments, allow yourself the “privilege” of being associated and connected and claimed by a people whose very existence is a miracle. And in light of all the darkness that has beset us through the generations, sing! Sing of hope, sing of peace, sing Jewish songs or secular songs. Sing with your friends, with your family, with your neighbors, your students. Sing! Song is the reminder that when we lift up our voices, we lift up our hearts and our eyes and we know that we have survived.


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